25 Programming Ideas for 2002

Initiating new programming each year can be as simple as looking and listening. Take copious notes about what campers, parents, staff and peers are saying and you've made an important first step.


Then, keep your eyes out for books, magazines and Web sites that provide activity ideas. These two simple steps will offer an amazing range of programs that you can uniquely tailor to your camp and its goals.

"It's easy to get caught up in the status quo, maintaining the program you have and creating new systems of holding that program together," says Ben Lower, program director, camps and conferencing, YMCA Camp St. Croix, Hudson, Wis. "Pay attention to what the participants are or are not enjoying, and what the trends are, at least in that region."

Counselors and staff are also crucial sounding boards and idea-generators (see Counselor's Corner on page xx). It not only bears programming fruit; it also creates a sense of ownership among those who work first hand in the trenches with the kids.

"As well as listening to the campers and parents, we also listen to the counselors to find out what they're interested in doing," says Katie Walker of Mountain Camp in Pollock Pines, Calif. "As with any job, if you have a passion for it you'll teach and enjoy that job even more."

Solomon Birenbaum, program director of Camp Robin Hood in Toronto, offers a blueprint for initiating, continuing and reinforcing new programs, particularly team-building exercises. "Team building is not something you can do just at the beginning; it's something that you must constantly reinforce, remind and re-implement," says Birenbaum. "It's important to do orientation at the beginning and then continue the progression of these activities. So you really want to constantly increase the value, difficulty and standard for these activities through the course of however long the session is. You begin by orienting the campers with ground rules, safety, and so on. Then you move into low-risk activities, where you don't have to do anything that's very different than what you might normally do.

Then you move into progressively higher-risk activities. For example, I'm able to fall into someone else's arms, or I'm able to scream at the top of my lungs and cheer on my teammates. If I'm able to constantly develop that progression then I'm able to build a strong team. Over three days that's our aim. But if a group comes in for a one-day program, then simple exposure to the team-building element is a better goal."

Birenbaum also recommends two books that offer activity ideas and direction that any camp can tailor to its needs, qualifying his programming expertise with the fact that much of it is based on ideas he's read or heard about:

Rohnke, K. (1985). Cows, Tails & Cobras: A Guide to Games, Initiatives, Ropes Courses & Adventure Curriculum. Project Adventure Inc., Hamilton, Mass.

Rohnke, K. (1985). Silver Bullets: A Guide to Initiative Problems, Adventure Games and Trust Activities. Project Adventure Inc., Hamilton, Mass.

After scouring the camp landscape for programming ideas, we came up with 25 great ideas (in no particular order) that you can either implement, or will at least help get the creative juices flowing…

1. Dick Bennett, scout executive, Hawk Mountain Council Boy Scouts of America, says they're interactively teaching kids about basic energy concepts, atomic energy and electricity.

This allows a lot of hands-on building and creative outlet, as scouts make engines and motors with boards, wires and batteries. They build rockets and launch them. They work with Geiger counters. They even drop eggs from extreme heights to see which packing method worked best.

It's really a way of getting kids excited about the seemingly mundane things we take for granted. Flip a switch and the lights come on…

Hawk Mountain works with East Penn Manufacturing on this program, and Penn State University for its aerospace program, illustrating the partnership opportunities that exist between camps and universities, corporations and other organizations.

2. At Mountain Camp in Pollock Pines, Calif., they put a new twist on a program they recently dropped, riflery. Instead of shooting rifles, they're using slingshots. Katie Walker says that, at least in their area, parents were increasingly jittery about kids shooting rifles, given the recent events at Columbine and other schools across the U.S. The slingshot replacement also allows campers to travel a course through the woods where targets (inexpensive toys from Costco) are set up beforehand.

3. Camp Robin Hood has three climbing walls of various heights, which they utilize for team-building activities. The highest wall (30 feet) builds teamwork as the belayer is an active participant with the climber, while the rest of the team's job is to cheer the climber and belayer to their goal.

4. Climbing walls are fun, in and of themselves, but add a story line and a goal, and watch the campers' positive reaction. At Camp Robin Hood's low wall (seven feet) teamwork is an essential element -- the whole group has to get over the wall as quickly as possible.

"We do a little story at the beginning -- we're running through the forest and tigers and lions are chasing us. We're scientists, and all of us are required on the other side to finish our masterful experiment to save the world," explains Camp Robin Hood's Birenbaum. "So how are we all going to get over the wall? I'll give you a minute to communicate. Then they discuss as a group how they can get over the wall. The wall is about seven feet tall, so it's a little too tall for any one person to do it on their own."

The campers discuss the options… Perhaps one person is strong enough to get over the wall and help pull the rest over. Or, two or three people can work at boosting everyone else over the wall and can then get help from the teammates they helped over in the first place.

"Then we can adapt it so that they have to do it without speaking, or pretend a member of the team has an injury and cannot use any of their arms or legs," says Birenbaum. "You can imagine how those adaptations effect the strength of the group."

5. With Camp Robin Hood's medium-sized wall (about 18 feet high) they'll evaluate the success of the group differently. As Birenbaum explains, "It may be getting one person over the wall, because there's a button that needs to be pushed on the other side to save the world from destruction."

6. Hawk Mountain publishes its camp newsletter from the computer lab. Here, campers write, edit and produce, giving those with a journalistic or artistic bent an additional outlet.

7. Astronomy is a popular program and YMCA Camp Grady Spruce in Graford, Texas, rotates campers in a two-hour session in four different programs, says Kevin Spaeth, director of outdoor education.

One group works with a portable planetarium called StarLab. Another group works outside with telescopes. A third group creates their own constellations as they look at the night sky and dream up the legends that surround them in a creative writing exercise.

The fourth group does an activity called Starry Night, a computer program that came with one of the telescopes. It's projected on a big screen and allows the facilitator to set up the sky as it is in that time and place. Then the four groups rotate every half-hour.

8. Crestwood Country Day School in Mellville, N.Y., brings in a circus troop to do clinics with the campers in trapeze, high wire and juggling, among others.

"It's something kids like and we wanted to do it," says summer program director Mark Hemmerdinger. "We wanted to make it a wow activity, rather than just bringing in someone to teach juggling."

9. Hawk Mountain's ecology center teaches subjects like landscape architecture and conservation. Its ecology center is state-of-the art with three rooms, an open pavilion, and it's built in the shape of an arrow. This is obviously beyond the budgetary means of many camps, but teaching ecology through working on and building nature trails and simple earth science experiments on the grounds of the camp are inexpensive ways to make ecological education fun. A weather station is another good idea related to ecology, and can be as simple as tracking barometric pressure, or as high-tech as setting up computer stations with local radar and climate data.

10. Katie Walker of Mountain Camp says that international staff has allowed the camp to expand its programming. If you have international counselors, ask them about the sports and activities unique to their homeland that they could teach. Who knows? It may be a summer experiment, or it could be an activity you keep for years.

11. A cooperative and competitive activity at Camp Robin Hood is Team Skis.

"Let's say there's a group of 15. We'll separate them into groups of five and each group will stand on two wooden skis, holding a string in their hands," explains Birenbaum. "If the whole group lifts their left feet at once and then their right feet at the same time, the skis walk… Otherwise they have trouble moving anywhere."

The groups race against each other, then they're debriefed by the staff. The debrief is an important element of the team-building exercises as the group works through what effective communication really is.

"The groups that are successful are saying to each other, 'Right, left,' and so on. Whereas the ones who have difficulty are those who are motivated and enthusiastic -- which are positive elements of teamwork -- but they don't have the coordination that a team requires," says Birenbaum. "So we'll talk about these issues of coordinated effort and when to coordinate an effort. We'll try to relate this issue of coordination to the real world, so the debrief conversation always comes down to what this is all about and how it relates to our everyday life."

12. How about sledding in the summer? On snow? Crestwood Country Day School trucked in blocks of ice, a shaving machine and a blower to create a snow day, complete with toboggans.

"That brought the local media out, so it served a lot of purposes," says Mark Hemmerdinger. "We offset the traditional by doing certain things that might be here for a day, a week, or a whole summer."

13. Ever heard of an ocarina? Well, it's a four-hole musical instrument that can be created using simple arts and crafts supplies. Tina Wilson, day camp specialist at Hoosier Capital Girl Scout Council in Indianapolis, says it quickly became a huge hit.

"I find most of the ideas in catalogs and magazines and type them up for the leaders," says Wilson. "The person who does the ocarina did an in-service for all the day camp directors and craft people so that they were taught how to do it hands-on before the summer started."

14. Warp Speed is a popular game at Camp Robin Hood, and an effective team builder. The object is for each member of the group to touch the ball and make it through the group as quickly as possible. No two people can touch the ball at the same time. "Maybe they'll simply pass the ball around the first time," says Birenbaum. "Well, it took 60 seconds… Would you believe the record is one second?"

So the campers try every scenario -- hitting it (that causes drops and lost time) or rolling it through everyone's arms like a rail. These attempts can bring the time down considerably, but not to the unbelievable time of one second.

"Then someone thinks outside the box and says, 'Why don't we try dropping it from five feet, we'll each put our hands out and as it falls it will touch all of our hands on its way down.' As a facilitator I keep my eyes on how the communication is going, because sometimes someone will start off by saying, Why don't we try dropping it?' and everyone else will say, 'No, that's stupid.' So at the debrief we'll ask in as comfortable a way as possible, 'How did you feel when you weren't listened to? How do you make yourself heard?' Then we talk about sentence starters that can lead others to follow your direction," says Birenbaum.

15. Camp St. Croix has instituted a Journey Program that includes a barn, a livestock building and stations in the woods where campers can learn leatherworking, basket weaving and pioneer-style cooking. It's fun for the kids to work with their hands, and gives them an education about how early Americans lived.

"It's a direction the day campers have been wanting to go, but at the same time we're keeping it in the day camp realm. In our region there's definitely a need for day camp programs," says Ben Lower. "Even a day camp kid gets sick of doing the same thing year after year, and this will revitalize it."

16. Camp Robin Hood's Trust Fall, a staple at many camps, is another opportunity to relate camp experience to real-world situations. It also allows them to gauge what's on the minds of youngsters.

"The problem we have to overcome in this case is fear, so we talk about the fear of trying new things at the debrief, like going to high school and public speaking," says Birenbaum. "We caught the person who was falling. What do we represent? We're the people who support the person who feels they have a loss of control. Maybe we're the senior students who show the younger students around… Certainly after Sept. 11 responses were different. It's an excellent tool to answer the question of what's on the minds of young people."

17. Don't be afraid to experiment. At Mountain Camp, an experiment with video production led to an annual program with a facility and video equipment. This summer, Mountain Camp experimented with photography. If it catches on, a photo lab could be in the works. If it doesn't catch on, no harm, no foul.

"If the kids respond and enjoy it, we'll do something more in depth with it. Once it becomes popular enough we take steps to do that," says Katie Walker.

18. Camp Robin Hood has a team slogan and logo activity, where each member of the team has a specific responsibility to come up with the best possible logo and slogan for their team.

19. True Colours is an activity developed by the University of Toronto's Institute for Studies and Education (www.oise.utoronto.ca), and is implemented by Camp Robin Hood. In it, campers are asked a series of questions that will then be tallied to identify them with a color. Once they've discovered what color they are, they get into groups by color, discuss their likes and dislikes, then make a presentation to the other groups, or colors.

"We'll talk about how team building is understanding the rest of the team, and not just yourself. We talk about how, when you're around a green person, for instance, to be knowledgeable and also be prepared to say, 'I don't know the answer to that.' It's a personality test that enlightens people about each other and themselves," says Birenbaum.

20. Managing and scheduling programs is often as important as the programming content. As camp directors are all too aware, juggling programs based on attendance, ages and sessions can be quite a chore.

Ben Lower of Camp St. Croix says, "One thing we're going to take a look at doing in the next couple of years is not creating more bed space to accommodate more campers, but playing with the schedule. We have a fair number of campers who go on trail -- canoeing, backpacking, sailing trips, etc. There are a number of days where their cabins are empty for a week while they're gone, and some of these trips fill quickly. This is nothing earth-shattering, but it's good management to look closely at where you have a lot of interest, and where you're holding spaces until the very end because they're not filling in a certain program. You might have 30 other kids who want to get into another program, but it's full, so we have to be able to switch it around, make use of empty bed space and get those kids into camp."

21. The outdoor living skills taught at Mountain Camp are constantly evolving and improving, and a lot of that has to do with counselor initiative. Counselor input has helped bring in a number of useful skills, like navigating and orienteering. Mountain camp also emphasizes no-impact camping, where campers learn to set up and take down a campsite without leaving a trace.

22. Shrinking Island is another team-building exercise practiced by Camp Robin Hood. They put a blanket down that can easily accommodate everyone in the group. The activity can be run in several ways. In one scenario, the object is to flip the blanket over without stepping off the island. In another, the group tries to fold the "island" in half as many times as possible.

23. Mission Impossible Day is a fun summer diversion for campers at Crestwood Country Day School. Campers are given arts and crafts supplies and are given a goal, like building the biggest structure they can or some type of specific structure, like a castle.

"One summer they were just given hundreds of Popsicle sticks and glue," says Mark Hemmerdinger. "We tell them what the mission is, and they go and do it. It's a bonding experience for the group, and it's an arts and crafts activity."

24. Tina Wilson of Hoosier Capital Girl Scout Council says they've implemented Program Boxes to spark ideas and add variety to the programming.

"In each box there are three to five activities that leaders take back to their units and do on the spot," says Wilson. "We have nine different volunteer directors and each week there's something different, depending on who the director is."

The Program Boxes also reflect the interests of the kids, based on evaluations from previous years. So if the kids express an interest in trees and flowers, for instance, activities relating to trees and flowers will be placed in the Program Boxes.

25. Of course the Internet is a font of ideas and information. The problem is finding what you're looking for. As a wise person once said, "I typed in a search for the product I was looking for, and the search engine said, 'Congratulations. Your product can be found on planet Earth.'" Here's one for everyone who teaches knots, www.virtualknot.com. Pick a knot and it virtually ties the knot on-screen.